Tony Scott's Domino is simultaneously one of the sloppiest yet most fascinating American mainstream films made in the last 20 years. It combines the slapdash abilities of two of the most off-the-wall filmmakers working today into a hodgepodge that displays the best and worst of both. It contains Richard Kelly's swirling eddy of jumbled, half-baked ideas as filtered though Tony Scott's postmodern pseudo-poetry. The entire film has, as someone in the film says of a television executive, "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." And yet, when the film clicks, it manages to push the most outlandish elements of Kelly and Scott's élans to their extremes, to the point that the whole thing goes collapses in on itself, a red giant becoming a denser white dwarf. Somehow, it works, precisely because it doesn't.
Perhaps the only bit of honesty in the whole damn thing is the opening disclaimer that flashes, "Based on a true story" on the screen before another bit of text, almost as an afterthought, fades in: "Sort of." From the start, voiceovers and shots add exposition even as they bewilder. Scott loops sections of Keira Knightley's dialogue with his layered shots, starting in medias res not only within the narrative but within the background Domino Harvey (Knightley) provides about her life and her missions as a bounty hunter. Every so often, the film folds back in on itself, filling in details of the plot, some of which rearrange seemingly resolved stories with new perspective.
Scott cast Knightley in the role of Harvey, a model-turned-bounty-hunter, after seeing her in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but there wasn't much in The Curse of the Black Pearl to hint at the part she plays here. Domino represents the opposite of the majority of Knightley's other roles, an anti-glamor punk who turned to busting noses to vent her Soho and Beverley Hills-injected ennui. She works in a team with Ed Moesby (Mickey Rourke), the greatest bounty hunter in L.A., and Choco (Édgar Ramírez), a street urchin getting out his own psychopathic rage through chasing down bail skippers. Together, they break down doors, crack heads and generally confuse everyone who sees two juiced-up apes with a lithe, petite pixie in tow, a sight all the more confounding in that the lumbering, more experienced masses seem to follow her lead.
Domino unfolds in flashback as the protagonist recounts a horrifically botched job to an FBI psychologist (Lucy Liu). The first action we see is a shootout in a mobile home involving a locked freezer filled with money and a decoder ring on a severed arm, and just what the hell just happened is not fully explained for another 80 minutes. This is one of the more normal sequences of the film. Kelly went hog-wild with his treatment, connecting Domino's early life with her bounty hunting career by having her first assignment end with a lap dance to diffuse a tense situation (natch).
Scott, meanwhile, takes his leap forward with Man on Fire and makes it look like the most aesthetically conventional action movie around. The framing device setting up a flashback leads to a narrative that flashes back, forward and seemingly sideways at will, duplicating the image literally with Scott's production effects and recreating the image in broader terms when each scene is invariably echoed down the road with new details.
If Man on Fire showed Tony Scott broadening his artistic palette, Domino shows him upending his bag of tricks on the table. Besides the sickly yellow gauze that washes over the film, Scott shifts film speed, exposure and lighting on a dime, overlapping images, his long lenses blurring the edges of the frame and capturing the object of focus in almost uncomfortable detail. Domino shares more than a few tricks with Scott's previous adaptation of a narratively daring upstart's script, True Romance, albeit in a more frenzied tone. The reveries in which Domino pours out her thoughts in the narration over half-connected imagery recall the lilting "Gassenhauer" sections of True Romance, and the final shootout is a bigger and bolder take on Tarantino's humorous climax. Even as Scott heads into new territory, he finds ways to tie himself back to his earlier work.
That referential streak extends beyond Scott's own corpus into a host of pop culture items that are paraded about the film on stakes. Domino's father, Laurence Harvey, was an actor, and we see him when The Manchurian Candidate comes on TV -- "I knew Frank Sinatra," chimes in Ed, to which more than one person at different parts responds, "Who didn't?" (Ed also claims to have jammed with Stevie Ray Vaughan and hooked up with Pat Benetar.) The Jerry Springer Show gets lampooned directly with Springer himself joining the fray, while the aforementioned executive (Christopher Walken, who communicates solely in his various tics as if someone made a supercut of his weirdest and funniest moments) signs up the bounty hunting team for a Dog the Bounty Hunter knockoff that glamorizes them in a manner that both disgusts and allures the Hollywood-detesting Domino. Tagging along for that show are former Beverly Hills 90210 stars Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, whom Scott torments with constant references to their age and faded profiles, to say nothing of the physical punishment he metes out to them. The film even references Alf via the Afghani driver/demolitions expert. "He once ate a cat," Domino randomly supplies in a voiceover before clarifying: "We don't know how to pronounce his fucking name so we call him the cat-eating alien."
Had Kelly himself directed the film, he might have attempted to make some form of satire out of these references, but Scott uses them to contextualize his aesthetic and the offbeat, absurdist humor of the piece: the attention-deficit visuals grow out of the odd assortment of cultural touchstones assembled here and arranged by a man who trained as a painter. It's the perfect marriage of class and tastelessness.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film, however, is the manner in which Scott, whether intentionally or not, heads off any attempt on Kelly's part to try for any depth. Donnie Darko was riddled with symbols and metaphors that opened up interpretations beyond the bog-standard nature of the actual narrative, but Scott seems to take particular delight in throwing every potentially meaningful image at the wall until all that's left is a splattered collage. Domino constantly returns to the metaphor of a flipped coin to discuss her chances of survival during a job, and Scott shows a coin flipping in the air endlessly, often in front of a backdrop of an icon of Jesus, which in turn sometimes flashes back and forth between Jesus' and Choco's face. Domino's goldfish also enters into the fray, and given how many shots are repeated to the point of becoming motifs, even a seemingly meaningless image becomes a deliberately empty "symbol" through suggestion. The scene involving Tom Waits (ever the show-stealer) as some mystical wanderer in the desert proves this best of all: he speaks in portents but is divorced from the narrative even as he envisions the finale. The message is that there is no message. By stripping Kelly's more esoteric and muddied aspects and making them at once even more vague yet streamlined, he makes the strongest and most cohesive work Kelly's ever written, keeping all the fun and engaging doublebacks and misdirections while leaving out the thin satire (here, it's just dark comedy, and it works magnificently).
Despite the ridiculous pace the film maintains, Domino sags under the strain of its moving parts, most of them barreling ahead in opposition to the rest. But I still can't help but love the movie. Scott's visual style is so playful, overshooting someone and drifting back to proper framing as if someone accidentally put the outtake reels of setting up the blocking into the canisters for copying and distribution. He does not attempt to make the film about anything, instead using his knack for detail to paint an emotional abstract of what would otherwise be a painfully uninteresting film. I can not get the memory of the college kid's foot shaking in antsy impatience, the actual lion roar that comes out of Choco's grimacing mouth while on mescaline or the illuminated glimpses of Knightley's furious face in the climax as she fires assault rifles in darkness. Domino allowed Scott the chance to take stock of all that he'd learned with both the camera and the editing suite. He would refine the best of his abilities for use in his next project, and he'd end up making his masterpiece.